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The Stockpile Stewardship Program: Nuclear Weapons for the 21st Century

Smaller Bangs, but Still Testing the Bomb

Reclaiming the Comprehensive Test Ban

The Stockpile Stewardship Program: Nuclear Weapons for the 21st Century

         Despite the end of the Cold War and its obligation under the NPT to negotiate in good faith to end the arms race and eliminate nuclear weapons, the U.S. has publicly stated that "[n]ational security policies in the post-Cold War era require that all historical capabilities of the weapons laboratories, industrial plants, and NTS [the Nevada Test Site] be maintained," and that "denuclearisation... is not feasible based on current national security policy."1 To sustain this vast complex of nuclear weapons facilities, the U.S. is spending almost $6 billion dollars a year on the "Stockpile Stewardship" program, more than was spent on average during the Cold War on directly comparable activities.

         And in fact, this money is buying far more than what is needed to maintain "all historical capabilities." In addition to keeping its nuclear test site ready for the resumption of full scale underground tests, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is spending billions on new and more advanced nuclear weapons research and production facilities.

These include:

  • The National Ignition Facility (NIF), now being built at the Livermore National Laboratory in California. The NIF is a laser driven fusion machine the size of a football stadium, designed to create very brief, contained thermonuclear reactions. It is slated to be used for a wide range of applications from training weapons designers in nuclear weapons science to nuclear weapons effects testing.

  • The Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrotest Facility (DARHT). This facility, near completion at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, will join several already existing facilities where mockups of primaries, the first stage of a thermonuclear weapon, are imploded while very fast photographic or x-ray images are generated, thus allowing scientists to "see" inside. DOE already is developing technology for an even more sophisticated "hydrodynamic testing" facility, the Advanced Hydrotest Facility.

  • Pulsed power technologies: Further experiments exploring the extreme conditions created in a nuclear weapon explosion are studied using various types of "pulsed power," in which a large amount of energy is stored up and then released very quickly in a small space. The energy source can be chemical high explosives or stored electrical energy. Pulsed power facilities at both DOE and Department of Defense laboratories are used to explore nuclear weapons function and effects and directed energy weapons concepts, and could lead over the long run to a wide range of high technology weapons, including new types of nuclear weapons.

         The data streams from these and other experimental facilities, along with that from "subcritical" tests and the archived data from over 1000 past U.S. nuclear tests, will be integrated via the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI), a multi-billion dollar supercomputing program which reaches beyond the weapons laboratories, seeking to incorporate the nation's leading universities into an effort to attract and train yet another generation of nuclear weapons designers. Smaller, modernized nuclear weapons production processes are being developed to allow flexible, small lot manufacturing, with contingency plans for resumption of large-scale production. DOE also plans to use improved computer-aided design and manufacturing techniques to shorten the nuclear warhead design and production cycle.

         This array of facilities can be used to do more than merely maintain existing nuclear warheads in working order. As Sandia National Laboratory director C. Paul Robinson noted in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the CTBT, while the national laboratories "cannot create completely new concepts without testing, many previously tested designs could be weaponized to provide new military capabilities." Robinson observed that

For example, if nuclear weapons emerge as the right answer to deter the use of other weapons of mass destruction in a regional conflict, the nuclear weapons we currently deploy may carry too high a yield and be far too disproportionate a response to be a credible deterrent. Proven designs of lower yield exist that might be adaptable for new military requirements in the future. I believe that such weapons could be deployed this way without the need for nuclear tests.2

         One such modification, the B61-11 gravity bomb, already has been developed and deployed without underground testing. The B61-11 is an earth-penetrating bomb with a variable yield, which can be delivered by the B-2 Stealth bomber. Under the rubric of exercising Stockpile Stewardship capabilities, the weapons laboratories also are developing replacement warhead designs for submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) carried on Trident submarines, although no deployment plans have been made public. Upgrades of non- nuclear components also currently underway could result in increases in accuracy for a substantial portion of the SLBM warhead inventory.

         This ongoing program of intensive nuclear weapons research, design, and testing has fostered widespread doubts about U.S. commitment to "good faith" negotiations for nuclear disarmament required by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has provided arguments for those in other states who favor nuclear weapons development to question the purposes of the CTBT. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, for example, stated shortly after India's 1998 round of nuclear weapons tests that "taken as a whole, the CTBT is discriminatory because it allows nuclear weapons states with advanced technology capabilities to continue their nuclear weapons programme. And so also is Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). There is no question of India accepting any treaty that is discriminatory in character."3 

         If there is any U.S. "leadership" on nuclear weapons issues, it must appear to the world to be heading in the wrong direction. Rather than seeking multilateral solutions to international conflict and lowering tensions by disassembling the enormous military machinery of the Cold War, the United States is setting the pace for a new century of high technology arms competition, with a constantly modernized nuclear arsenal still brandished as the ultimate threat.


  1. Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Stockpile Stewardship and Management, United States Department of Energy, September 1996, pages S-3, S-48. back
  2. Statement of C. Paul Robinson to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, October 7, 1999. back
  3. Interview with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India Today, May 25, 1998. back

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